Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What Drives Putin's Foreign Policy Decisions?

Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

Here, in this blog post, three of CWCP's contributors give their take on an important and interesting question. In short, what drives Vladimir Putin's foreign policy decision-making? In light of the increasingly prominent role played by Russia in today's world politics, as evidenced in the case of Syria, it seems crucial to understand how Russia's leader sees the world and how he makes political calculations. What follows below is an exploratory attempt to discuss and examine the factors and forces that motivate Putin's foreign policy.

Yohanes Sulaiman

A couple of days ago, I had a chat with a Russian attache on the issue of Syria, which largely confirmed the ideas that I have explored in my earlier blog posts on Syria: notably, that Putin's foreign policy in Syria is driven by his fear of contagion, that the fall of Assad could be used by the Islamists to create a base for their operation that creates more instability in the region, especially in the Caucasus Region, where the rugged geographic conditions have made it difficult for Russia to impose a total control on the population.

That's also basically why Putin is so concerned in propping up the rule of the Mullahs in Iran. Putin sees the Shiites as a good counterbalance against Sunni extremism.

What surprised me, though, is the fact that the attache noted that Putin's main concern was not Chechnya, but Dagestan. According to him, Chechnya was basically under control, with one warlord ruling the republic. As Chechnya is a clan-based society and ethnically homogeneous, once Moscow managed to put a leader originated and supported by the strongest clan in Chechnya, with additional some strong measures imposed once in a while, Moscow has been able to assert control over most of the republic. Of course, the ethnic homogeneity in Chechnya is also the reason why the war there back in 1994-6 was a bloody affair.

Dagestan, however, is a different story. Unlike in Chechnya, Dagestan has many ethnic groups, making it difficult for the country to unite against the Russian authority, but at the same time, makes them very difficult to control effectively. And there has been a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the region, which Moscow fears might be exacerbated should Assad fall from power and the al-Nusra take over Syria.

[It has to be noted that this fear might not be that off, considering that the Boston Marathon Bombers were believed to be radicalized during their visits to Dagestan.]

So what drives Putin overall foreign policy decision making? Mostly the domestic issues. I think Putin has realized that Russia has to be satisfied as a regional power for now. It has neither the capability nor the political will to expand as much as it did during the Cold War, and thus his priority is on maintaining Russia's primacy in the region that he cares most about.

His mocking the United States serves as bones that he can throw once in a while to his nationalist base. There are talks that Putin wants to try to again become an influential power in other important areas, such as Southeast Asia region, but it seems that the interests there are mostly economics, e.g. selling planes. And moreover, I haven't seen an indication that Russia is spending as much attention to Southeast Asia as it used to do during the Cold War.

Brad Nelson

As should be obvious, Vladimir Putin's foreign policy making is driven by more deeper, fundamental issues than Syria or Edward Snowden. I suspect factors like Putin's ego, his sense of legacy, and his geo-strategic vision, as Yohanes alluded to above, are important here. But generally speaking, my working hypothesis is that domestic political calculations are the first and primary motivating factors. At bottom, Putin desires to marginalize any and all domestic political opponents and threats to his power base as well to bolster his grip on power, and it is these motives that are profoundly shaping present-day Russian foreign policy on a wide range of issues.

Over the last few years, Putin has discovered that not all Russians are enamored with his dictatorial ways. Indeed, protests in Russia, mostly though not limited to Moscow, have surfaced, first in response to the 2011 legislative elections, which were seen as rigged, and then subsequently triggered by LGBT policy, corruption, and so on. These protests weren't enough to cause a "Moscow Spring," but they did put Putin on the defensive.

To undercut these domestic opponents Putin and his associates have done two things. One, he has upped the pressure on them, typically through various political persecutions, by banning, bringing charges against, imprisoning, and probably even killing opponents. Authorities issued threats against protesters and demonized them, restricted protest permits, put in place laws regulating demonstrations, and by early 2012, began to make a heavy presence at planned protests; and state media censored coverage of protests. The crackdown, combined with Putin's presidential victory in the spring of 2012, effectively sucked the oxygen out of the air for the entire protest movement. Defeatism set in and the protests petered out.

Two, Putin has resorted to scapegoating. He blamed the protests on the West, America in particular, calling the protesters paid agents from abroad. And in September 2012, Russia kicked out USAID for stirring up the protests. Anti-Americanism still runs high in Russia, and negative appeals to America consistently plays well and is a valuable card to use.

Putin has also called for a "resurrection" of Russia, an awakening of a strong Russia on the world stage. Russia is set, according to the logic coming out of Moscow, to overcome past humiliations, all of which have been committed or abetted by the West: NATO expansion, the 1990s bombings in the former Yugoslavia, the color revolutions, and, more recently, the grievous snub on Libya. Russia is primed to enter an "imperial rebirth," as best exemplified in Putin's Eurasian Union, exactly at the ripe time of America's decline. This is a moment of national pride.

This rhetoric has impacted Putin in two ways. On the one hand, it has given Putin and his supporters a tool to shout down and attack his critics and the demonstrators, squarely putting them on the defensive. On the other hand, it has bled into actual Russian foreign policy, which has worked out well for Putin. It has led him to stand up to the U.S. on various issues, just like in the good ole days of the Cold War, back when the Soviets were powerful and resolute. It's why Russia has taken obstructionist and non-cooperative positions on issues key to U.S. interests and values. All of this, in turn, has enhanced his and Russia's standing in the world, to the point that Moscow--not Beijing--is now often portrayed by analysts and pundits as the main counterweight to Washington.

Anthony Rinna

The media have touched upon, to an extent, Russia’s desire to be seen as a major player once again and an important actor on the world stage. This is seen most often is what has been portrayed as a Russian tendency to “be difficult” or stubborn regarding international politics, to stand up against the US and the West at almost any conceivable opportunity. Yet the reasons for Putin’s foreign policy actions are not limited to the personality of Putin himself or simply the realities of modern Russia, but also have deep historic reasons.

Without a small background in the events which have shaped the Russian mentality, it can be difficult to understand the reasoning behind Putin’s recent actions. In essence, the driving force behind his foreign policy is to make it clear to the West that they are not to intervene in Russia’s internal affairs, nor does the West have the right to trample on Russia’s international position. If Russia does not show itself to be a strong nation in international politics, it may open itself up to direct outside intervention later.

Much of Putin’s foreign policy is driven by a sense of vulnerability toward the outside world. Russia has no natural barriers allowing for its security, and has felt like it is wide open to outside intervention and interference. This, by the way, is nothing new. One of the most notable cases of Western intervention in Russia is the case of “False Dmitry,” a Pole who pretended to be the new Czar Dmitry of Russia from 1610-1612. He was actually planted in Moscow by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the purpose of exploiting Muscovy for Poland’s interests. When he was discovered as a fraud he was promptly executed and, in true Russian fashion, his ashes were stuffed into cannon and fired back over the Polish border. Somewhat more recently, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Belarussian SSR (now Belarus) was created on loose historic grounds to serve as a buffer between Russia and Poland and Germany.

Russians also feel the need to play catch-up with the West, especially in terms of technology. This is part of the reason we have seen so many cases of espionage by Russia against the US lately. Most notably, in the case of the technology and innovation gap between Russia and the West, is the arrest of Texas-based businessman Alexander Fishenko, who was caught transferring nanotechnologies to the Russian military.

Putin realizes that his country is not the great power it once was, and is seeking every opportunity he can to make one thing very clear to the outside world: don’t mess with Russia. If Russia’s conventional military forces are poor, its economy is not as great as those of its G8 peers, and its soft power appeal to the rest of the world is lacking, then what other recourse does Russia have to demonstrate its national greatness? It’s to try and stand up to the West as much as it can in order to show its strength and leverage to the rest of the world.  I don’t want my readers to take that statement as my own apologetic for Russia’s behavior, but simply to help others put the country’s behavior into context.

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